The U.S. call for support for Iranian antigovernment protesters drew a mixed reaction at the United Nations, with some U.S. allies questioning whether an international response was justified and Tehran accusing Washington of seeking to derail an international nuclear deal.
Amid a backdrop of diplomatic maneuvering, state television showed footage of pro-government rallies that were held in several Iranian cities on January 6, while social media showed images and video of antigovernment demonstrations in the capital and other areas.
The rallies came hours after U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley opened an emergency session of the UN Security Council on January 5 with an impassioned plea for “brave” Iranian demonstrators, saying they are "risking their lives" to assert their rights to criticize the government and pursue a better life.
"The Iranian people are rising up in over 79 locations throughout the country," Haley said. "It is a powerful exhibition of brave people who have become so fed up with their oppressive government that they are willing to risk their lives in protest."
"The Iranian regime is finally on notice: The world will be watching what you do," she said.
But Russia's ambassador to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, said the United States was "abusing the platform of the Security Council" with a "bogus" pretext to interfere in the domestic affairs of a member nation.
He also accused the White House of using the events in Iran as a false pretense for scrapping a deal that requires Iran to curb its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.
The Trump administration certified Iran's compliance twice last year, but in October the president declined to certify for the first time, pointing to Iran's ballistic-missile development and other matters that he said were in violation of the "spirit" of the deal.
"The true underlying reason for convening today's session lies not in attempts to protect the human rights and interests of Iranian people but in a veiled attempt to use the current moment to continue the line towards derailing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which aims to settle the situation around Iran's nuclear program," Nebenzya said.
Iranian UN Ambassador Gholamali Khoshroo also accused the United States of "bullying" and "abusing" its power to summon a meeting of the Security Council on a matter he said was "outside the scope of its mandate.”
Envoys from China, Sweden, Bolivia, and several other countries also expressed reservations about whether the Security Council was the right forum for discussing the protests.
But in perhaps the biggest blow to U.S. hopes of galvanizing support for the protesters, some U.S. allies in Europe also questioned the move to raise the matter before the Security Council. Only British UN Ambassador Matthew Rycroft openly defended the move.
“However worrying the events of the last few days in Iran may be, they do not constitute per se a threat to international peace and security," said France's UN ambassador, Francois Delattre.
"We must be wary of any attempts to exploit this crisis for personal ends, which would have the diametrically opposed outcome to that which is wished," he said.
The rebuff from close U.S. allies prompted a tweet from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif claiming that Iran had successfully fended off the U.S. attempt to organize any UN intervention in Iran.
"The UNSC rebuffed the U.S.'s naked attempt to hijack its mandate -- Another [foreign policy] blunder for the Trump administration," Zarif tweeted.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged being disappointed about the response to the Iranian protests, especially from Western allies.
"We're a bit disappointed that the European Union has not taken a more definitive stance in supporting those voices in the country that are calling for reform," he said in an interview on January 5 with the Associated Press.
The diplomatic maneuvering follows a week of antigovernment street protests in Iran that have led to the deaths of at least 22 people and reports of an estimated 1,700 arrests.
At the same time, pro-government demonstrators have rallied in several Iranian cities amid government claims that the unrest has been brought to an end.
On January 6, state TV showed hundreds of government supporters waving Iranian flags and chanting anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli slogans in cities such as Amol in the north.
Reports in Western media about antigovernment demonstrations in Iran have decreased since Tehran blocked key social-media sites used by the protesters to spread video of the earlier unrest, which has been seen as the strongest challenge to the country's Islamic leadership in almost a decade.
The Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), part of a global project collecting evidence of Internet censorship, said on January 5 that its data confirm the government has blocked Telegram, Instagram, and Facebook Messenger during the protests.
RFE/RL obtained credible reports on January 6 from sources in Iran about overnight demonstrations against Iran's clerical rulers in Tehran, Takestan, Khomein, Arak, Mashhad, Qazvin, Rasht and Lahijan, despite the presence of security forces.
Images were also released of the funerals of two protesters who died during the demonstrations.
State media has reported that, despite the statement, the IRGC is continuing to deploy security forces in different parts of the country.
State TV showed footage of pro-government rallies on January 5 in cities, including Tabriz and Kerman, marking the third day of such demonstrations.
While leading Friday Prayers in Tehran, hard-line cleric Ahmad Khatami said he backs the government's blocking of social media to disrupt the spread of information about the protests. He claimed that when the government blocked social media, "the riots stopped."
"The nation does not support a social network whose key is in the hand of the United States," he said.
'Have No Mercy'
He added that the judiciary should have compassion for those who have been “tricked” into protesting, but those who continue to speak out “are Americans.”
“Have no mercy on Americans,” he said.
The protests, which began over economic hardships suffered by Iran’s youth and working class, have evolved into an uprising against the powers and privileges of what some critics call a remote elite, especially Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli on January 4 downplayed the number of protesters who have participated in the marches over the past week.
"The relevant authorities have reported that there have been, at most, 42,000 people, and that is not a very high number," the minister was quoted as saying by the ISNA news agency.
Iran's army chief asserted on January 4 that local police forces had mostly quelled the unrest, but he said army troops remain ready to intervene if needed.
Iranian Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi said the protests were continuing, however, despite such assertions, and she urged her countrymen to press on with their demonstrations in interviews published on January 4.
"People are still in the streets. Even if they go home, their anger would remain, and the protests would resurface months or years later," Ebadi, a human rights lawyer who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, said in an interview with Reuters.
Meanwhile, rights group Amnesty International called on Iranian authorities to investigate reports that security forces have "unlawfully" used firearms against unarmed protesters and to protect hundreds of detainees from torture and other ill-treatment.
Even before the UN debat, the protests had set off a diplomatic battle between the governments of Iran and the United States, with Tehran accusing Washington of stepping up “its acts of intervention in a grotesque way in Iran's internal affairs under the pretext of providing support for sporadic protests."
Trump Chimes In
U.S. President Donald Trump has pledged to help Iranians "take back" their government and the White House weighed imposing sanctions on those involved in the crackdown against demonstrators.
Trump has issued Twitter statements several times in support of the protesters, including a tweet on January 3 that said he respected “the people of Iran as they try to take back their corrupt government.”
“You will see great support from the United States at the appropriate time!" Trump wrote in the post.